Patuxent facility to focus on breeding, training whooping cranes

The Baltimore Sun

Turns out the person who said, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander," stopped a few feathers short of a pillow.

Apparently, what's good for the whooping cranes that live in Laurel also is good for ducks that hang out in Maryland.

Which is why Ducks Unlimited is helping to pay for some serious-looking bulldozers to dig a 7-acre shallow pit at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge that will fill with water. The $70,000 hole in the ground will be used by scientists raising endangered baby whoopers as an aquatic center to train captive birds to act naturally.

And why a duck? (Sorry, folks).

"The primary purpose is to help the whooping cranes, but this will be an amazing habitat for ducks," says Kirk Mantay, wildlife ecologist for DU. "From about Dec. 1 to May 1, the area will flood to create wetlands similar to what is used by the cranes in their natural wintering grounds. In summer, we'll draw down the water to encourage the growth of plant life and serve as nesting cover for birds."

In the distance around Mantay is living proof: man-made ponds dotted with teals and mallards, and black ducks all calling Patuxent home for the winter.

Since 2001, the whooper breeding program has been carried out by a dedicated crew at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent facility, which hatches two-thirds of the chick eggs in North America. The facility sits on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent North Tract, which is more isolated than the adjacent parcel that holds the visitor center.

But there's a problem.

"Whooping cranes don't breed particularly well in captivity. Birds nest in wetlands. We've been asking them to breed in hills and on dry land, and they're not set up to do that," says John French, a member of USGS Crane Team. "This project was conceived as a way to motivate them to breed."

Even with a wetlands, whooper breeding isn't as easy as introducing Wesley to Wanda and letting nature take its course.

Eggs from Patuxent whoopers along with eggs from zoos in Texas and Canada are placed under sandhill cranes (they make better parents) for most of the 28-day incubation period. Toward the end of their stay inside olive-colored shells, the chicks are moved to warming boxes with the piped-in sounds of purring adult birds and the roar of the engine of an ultralight plane that will lead their first migratory flight to their new winter homes in Florida.

From the birds' first seconds in the outside world in April until they depart in the summer for Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, the staff does its best to keep them wild.

Workers wear "crane suits," consisting of big white coveralls, peaked hats and black boots and use their best library voices around the cages and when they take them outside to play.

Since Patuxent's class of 2001, more than 140 young cranes have been born and trained in Maryland.

But there have been setbacks. After successfully making it to Florida, the entire 18-bird class of 2006 died, most in a severe storm. That wiped out an entire breeding generation and reduced the flock's diversity.

This year, bad weather has slowed the migration of the ultralight team and the 14 birds of the class of 2008. The birds are in a prolonged stopover in Alabama until New Year's Eve, when volunteers will press on to two wildlife refuges. (You can follow their progress at

With a mental imprint of the route, the birds will find their way back to Wisconsin next spring on their own.

It is an amazing effort to save an amazing bird. Standing 5 feet with a 6- to 8-foot wingspan, whoopers are North America's tallest birds. They were easy pickings in the 1800s for people who fancied their feathers as clothing accessories. Hunting and habitat loss took their toll, as well. From a population of 1,500 birds back then, their number plummeted until a 1941 census located just 15 birds.

Conservation efforts came in fits and starts until whoopers were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1970 and its Canadian equivalent in 1978. Little by little, the cranes are coming back, thanks in large part to the Patuxent project.

When the Patuxent pit is done next month, DU will begin planning two additional wetlands. All three areas will be decorated with natural perches, including large, dead tress, called "snags," and a jumble of sticks resembling a beaver lodge.

"This area was an extension of the Patuxent River flood plain, so we're kind of restoring it to what it used to look like," says Holliday Obrecht, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As Obrecht and others explain the wetlands project, a bald eagle turns lazy circles in the air. In their pens a short distance away, the adult whoopers produce a haunting cry that sounds like their name as they warn the eagle to back off from their territory.

Construction of the wetland must be completed by Jan. 15 because soon thereafter, the whooping cranes will begin performing their courtship dance, a graceful and goofy combination of leaping, head bobbing and wing flapping.

Another season, another reason for making whoopers.

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